Matthew 19’s first section begins with a question: “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?””
Where did this question come from? It’s actually a question of the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 between two well-known rabbis – Hillel and Shammai. Here’s where it’s written in the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Gittin Folio 90a …
MISHNAH. BETH SHAMMAI SAY: A MAN SHOULD NOT DIVORCE HIS WIFE UNLESS HE HAS FOUND HER GUILTY OF SOME UNSEEMLY CONDUCT, AS IT SAYS, BECAUSE HE HATH FOUND SOME UNSEEMLY THING1 IN HER.2 BETH HILLEL, HOWEVER, SAY [THAT HE MAY DIVORCE HER] EVEN IF SHE HAS MERELY SPOILT HIS FOOD,3 SINCE IT SAYS,4 BECAUSE HE HATH FOUND SOME UNSEEMLY THING IN HER.5 R. AKIBA SAYS, [HE MAY DIVORCE HER] EVEN IF HE FINDS ANOTHER WOMAN MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN SHE IS, AS IT SAYS, IT COMETH TO PASS, IF SHE FIND NO FAVOUR IN HIS EYES.6
GEMARA. It has been taught: Beth Hillel said to Beth Shammai: Does not the text distinctly say ‘thing’?7 Beth Shammai rejoined: And does it not distinctly say ‘unseemliness’? Beth Hillel replied: Had it said only ‘unseemliness’ without ‘thing’, I should have concluded that she should be sent away on account of unseemliness, but not of any [lesser] ‘thing’. Therefore ‘thing’ is specified. Again, had it said only ‘thing’ without ‘unseemliness’, I should have concluded that [if divorced] on account of a ‘thing’ she should be permitted to marry again, but if on account of ‘unseemliness’, she should not be permitted to remarry. Therefore ‘unseemliness’ is also specified. And what do Beth Shammai make of this word ‘thing’?8 — [They use it for the following lesson.] It says here ‘thing’, and it says in another place ‘thing’, viz. in the text, ‘By the mouth of two witnesses or by the mouth of three witnesses a thing shall be established’:9 just as there two witnesses are required, so here two witnesses are required. And Beth Hillel? — [They can retort:] Is it written ‘unseemliness in a thing’? And Beth Shammai? — Is it written, ‘either unseemliness or a thing’? And Beth Hillel? — For this reason it is written ‘unseemliness of a thing’, which can be taken either way.10
and the footnotes:
1. Lit., ‘unseemliness of a thing’.
2. Deut. XXIV, 1. [The emphasis is on ‘unseemliness’, (cf. Mishnah ed. Lowe), ‘as it says “unseemliness”‘), and [H] is taken to mean, [H] ‘a thing of unseemliness’].
3. [‘Bad cooking is a more serious ground for divorce than some modern ones’ (Moore, Judaism II, 124, 4, 1.) It has been suggested that the expression is merely figurative pointing to some indecent conduct].
4. [The emphasis is on ‘thing’. (cf. loc. cit. ‘as it says “thing”‘), and the phrase is taken literally, ‘the unseemliness of a thing’.]
5. V. the discussion in the Gemara infra.
7. Which implies that he may divorce her for any cause.
8. Which on their view is apparently superfluous.
9. Deut. XIX, 15.
10. To imply both that a ‘thing’ is sufficient warrant for divorcing, and that he cannot be compelled to divorce unless there is sufficient evidence of misconduct.
The question might as well have been: “Is Rabbi Hillel right in that a man can divorce his wife for any reason? Or is Rabbi Shammai right in that a man ought not to divorce his wife?”You’ll notice here that it’s the men who have the power to seek and grant divorces, their wives are always just the other party. The one who has to live in fear that if she burns a meal that her husband might call her conduct sufficiently unseemly and divorce her, cast her out on the streets, separate her from her children, and leave her starving and penniless.
But Jesus in his trademark style doesn’t take the bait:
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
In other words: Neither one is really right, because they have the wrong reasoning.
So they try for round number 2:
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Just because Jesus was on the scene it doesn’t mean that everybody who heard him debate Pharisees would say to one another: “Surely this guy is God! He says that we’re forbidden from divorcing and I think that he’s got a point. I’m going to obey him to the letter and go home and tell my wife that I’m not kicking her out after all!”
Which is probably why the disciples chimed in at this point:
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
But since most Christians don’t know about the debate between these two famous rabbis, then their interpretation of Scripture tends to be a more literal reading of Scripture. The debate might as well not have happened. So let’s take a moment to imagine what the conversation would have been like had the two rabbis never disagreed on the subject:
Matthew 19 (2.0): When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
That’s right, if the two rabbis had never had that debate, it wouldn’t have ended up in Scripture and what has become one of the most popular anti-divorce commandments wouldn’t exist for any reason whatsoever. So for those of you who really hate divorce, you owe the Talmud big time. Now me, I just don’t believe that divorce as it applied in the Talmud has any bearing on divorce today. God may hate divorce, but I think he hates it even more when an abused wife is beaten regularly or killed by her spouse. God may hate divorce, but I think he hates it even more when a spouse micromanages the other, uses their money against them or to keep them prisoner or away from friends and family. God may hate divorce, but I think he hates even more what anti-divorce teachings has done and can be used to do.
As I said, it all comes down to interpretation – it’s really easy to be literalists or legalists especially when you don’t know the cultural context. Jesus was speaking specifically to marriage and divorce as taught in the Talmud, which the Pharisees believed was the Oral Law that God gave Moses at the same time as the Written Law and is authoritative as well as open to interpretation (the Torah – the first five books of the Bible, is the Written Law, aka the Law of Moses). It was through the Talmud/Oral Law that Jesus was constantly tested to prove how well he understood Scripture. I think Jesus had the right solution, when it’s either A or B, always choose C. And since most of us don’t believe the Talmud applies to us, then why we think that the answer to a question based on the Talmud’s teaching about divorce applies to us when the source text does not is quite a mystery to me.
Or put it another way, Jesus said that man and woman would be ‘one flesh’ – take any person today who beats themselves black and blue, starves themselves, cuts themselves, and we would rightfully say that they are a danger to themselves (and others) who needs help or counseling. Yet when it comes to marriage, because the Bible doesn’t say that domestic violence is an exception, such things seem to be permitted behind closed doors – only there are two people involved, a person who can’t seem to stop hurting the one he loves and hates himself for it, and another who no matter what she does can’t stop being hit. These two are not ‘one flesh’, but two hurting souls that need help. Sadly, the church is useless when it comes to things like that more often than not. As for Jesus, I think he would be the first to say that we’re not getting the point of what he was saying.